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For a minor history - postcolonial texts as supplement to literature
"Never again shall a single story be told as though it were the
only one." When Arundhati Roy chooses to overcode The God of Small
Things (1995) with this quote taken from John Berger's G. (1972), she
is probably aware of the fact that another postcolonial writer, Michael
Ondaatje, had already in 1986 used that very same epigraph for his novel, In
the Skin of a Lion. Of course there are no rules against the multiple
employment of epigraphs, nor against one author's quoting another author's
quoting yet another author; these might in fact be common practices that have
merely escaped me for lack of erudition. However, I am at this point not
primarily interested in the (para)textual politics involved in such
cross-referential manoeuvres - the tricky subversion-cum-reconfirmation of
author-ity; the further obscuring of the 'original' as it comes as a
hand-me-down; not even the possibly transgressive implications of a gesture in
which the postcolonial writer appropriates the metropolitan as always-already
appropriated by the postcolonial. My interest is, instead, naively content-based:
What could be the possible relation(s) between texts and paratext, these
texts and this paratext (and the text the latter stems from)? Why should,
after Bakhtin, after the (alleged) demise of grands récits, and in the
heyday of hybridity, an indictment against 'an only story' still hold an appeal
for postcolonial writers? In other words: What universalist claim is being
countered in postcolonial texts such as Roy's and Ondaatje's?
Postcolonial critics like Gayatri Spivak, David Scott or R. Radhakrishnan
conceive of the present global neo-liberalist hegemony, however differently
nuanced, as an updated version and continuation of the long 'only story' of
western universalism, now, in its apparently pluralistic postmodern avatar,
packaged as fundamental self-interrogation and still instrumental in the ongoing
project of violently interpellating the non-west. Meanwhile, according to both
Scott and Radhakrishnan, a plurality of 'local knowledges' or modes of
'subaltern self-fashioning' are widely practiced in the postcolonial world,
though everywhere contained by capitalist homogenisation. Radhakrishnan's
utopian figure of a multilateral universality, which at first might ring of an
attempt to square the circle, finds a systematic philosophical amplification in
the writings of the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, whose work is concerned with
the very same politics of representing diversity that Scott and Radhakrishnan
address. Chakrabarty envisages a project of 'provincialising Europe' with the
objective "that the world may once again be imagined as radically
Yet in Chakrabarty, there is an extreme cautiousness about claiming the
unproblematic availability of other knowledges untainted by western imposition
since it is precisely in the area of epistemology that a 'hyperreal Europe'
exerts an uninterrupted global domination (whereas Europe in the referential
sense of a geographical, political or even economic entity "has already
been provincialized by history itself" ). Though ontologically merely a
figure of the imaginary, the hyperreal 'Europe' is by no means just a spectral
hangover from the period of colonial expansion, nor can critical analysis "make
it go away" (28). The successful implementation of Europe's specific
knowledge system as universally valid has not evaporated along with colonialism
proper; it is, instead, continuously being reproduced as long as "the
privilege of providing the metanarrtives or teleologies" (37) of theory is
monopolised by western modern thought.
Where Scott and Radhakrishnan highlight the facticity of non-western
knowledges, Chakrabarty problematises their silencing in a framework of
epistemic hierarchies according to the monologic script of Europe's protocols
that renders any non-western knowledge insufficient. As in Partha Chatterjee's
interrogation of modernity, it is Hegelian political theory (the nation state
with its division into political and civil society as the 'only story') and the
capitalist mode of production that ineluctably circumscribe the horizon of
universal history, leaving all possible alternatives systematically
undertheorised. Nevertheless, the marginalised is, and its very existence
spells out a disclaimer to the universal validity claims of 'Europe'; it also
effects a revision of Chakrabarty's own earlier proposition according to which
the longevity of the imposition of Europe could only be responded to by a "politics
of despair". This latter is a bitterly ironic intervention that erases
itself by permanently pointing at its own impossibility under the aegis of the global
dominant: The project of provincialising Europe is "impossible within the
knowledge protocols of academic history, for the globality of academia is not
independent of the globality that the European modern has created" (46).
Given that Chakrabarty's international reputation is primarily based on exactly
readers might be slightly astonished to find, in conclusion to Provincializing
Europe, the statement that "at the end of European imperialism,
European thought is a gift to us all. We can talk of provincializing it only in
an anticolonial spirit of gratitude" (255). Such reconciliatory overtones
are obviously due to a revision of 'Europe', and in fact much of Chakrabarty's
book reads like a mollification of the more polemical, more 'radical' 1992
article. What has been changed? In the 1999 version, Europe itself becomes a
site of diversity: Marx, in 1992, had appeared basically as a collaborator in
the consolidation of the metanarrative of universal history by way of elevating
capital to the status of "a philosophical and universal category" (30)
equipped with the status "of the Hegelian idea of a totalizing unity"
(47) that, despite Marx's own "vision of emancipation [...] beyond the rule
of capital" (30), effectively implemented a systematic historicism spurning
Eurocentrist narratives "around the theme of 'historical transition'"
(31). It is precisely through this progressivist reading that Marx(ism) gets
inserted into, and collaborative with, that allochronic discourse
by which – according to David Scott - "the west folds the non-west into
its privileged telos". In 1999, however, Chakrabarty provides a
selective reading of Marx that turns the Hegelianism of orthodox marxist
historicism inside out. In the apocryphal sections of Marxian scripture - those
scattered observations on surplus value that were supposed to form the fourth
volume of Capital -, Chakrabarty excavates a Marx who proposes a
multiplicity of pasts beyond the teleology of capital and modernity, a world
that exceeds the universal history of transitions to the capitalist mode (and
thereafter to socialism and the classless society). There is, then, in Marx
himself the concession that not all history is one long transition to capitalism
and beyond; that not all pasts can be reduced to antecedents of the present (capitalist-modern)
mode; "that the total universe of pasts that capital encounters is larger
than the sum of those elements in which are worked out the logical
presuppositions of capital" (64). All the same, in Marx (and more
surprisingly so, in Chakrabarty) the universal history of capital (i.e. the
conceptualisation of history in terms of subsequent modes of production) remains
intact with the proviso that it is supplemented by those elements that capital
does "not [encounter] as antecedents established by itself, not as forms of
its own life-process".
While the familiar terrain of the transition narrative constitutes what
Chakrabarty labels "History 1", those pasts "that do not lend
themselves to the reproduction of the logic of capital" (64) constitute
"History 2", "a category charged with the function of constantly
interrupting the totalizing thrusts of History 1" (66). The monolateral
narrative of transition (the 'only story' of historicism) is thus replaced by a
principal pluralism, given that History 2s are not misused "for writing
histories that are alternatives to the narratives of capital" (66) which
would again relegate them to the status of the dialectical other of capital.
[t]he idea of History 2 allows us to make room, in Marx's own analytic of
capital, for the politics of human belonging and diversity. It gives us a ground
on which to situate our thoughts about multiple ways of being human and their
relationship to global capital. (67)
The notion of a coeval synchronicity of capital and other forms of 'human
belonging' "in intimate and plural relationships" (66) could easily be
dismissed as a harmonism, or a wishful thinking, that stops short at a
description of the status quo as inherently heterogeneous
without taking full cognizance of the conflictualities these relations imply.
Chakrabarty is, however, primarily interested in a principal rewriting of the
narrative of capital, a rewriting in which the notion of a 'universal' capital
would be foreclosed; more generally speaking, his objective is the
heterogenisation, from within, of a concept ('capital') that in some dominant
discourse is deemed to be categorically homogeneous.
In such a heterogenising version of the story, "globalization of capital is
not the same as capital's universalization" (71). Far from implementing a
unilateral and monocultural formation on a global scale, the present is shot
through with historical difference since "[n]o global (or even local, for
that matter) capital can ever represent the universal logic of capital, for any
historically available form of capital is a provisional compromise made up of
History 1 modified by somebody's History 2s" (70). Even though introduced
as a repository of the incommensurate ("could be entirely immeasurable"
), historical difference does not figure as 'pure' difference but guarantees
the very possibility of the emergence of "diverse ways of being
human, the infinite incommensurabilities through which we struggle - perennially,
precariously, but unavoidably - to 'world the earth'" (254, second emphasis
mine). In spite of Chakrabarty's own self-declared anti-totalistic agenda
emphasising 'infinite incommensurabilities', his text, on a more fundamental
level, produces a reconciliation of the universal and the particular, History 1
and History 2s: While an acknowledgment of the latter is the prerequisite for a
recognition of the actual plural modes of human belonging, the former, precisely
in its abstracting tendency, remains indispensable for any critical reading of
modernity in the light of its own official script, "the Enlightenment
promise of an abstract, universal, never-to-be-realized humanity" (254).
It is the objective of my paper to delineate a reading of some selected postcolonial literary texts in the light of Chakrabarty's intervention into the discourse of historicism.
Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial Thought
and Historical Difference, Delhi (Oxford University Press) 2001, 46. The
first chapter, from which this quote is taken, coincides with the 1992
article "Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for
'Indian' Pasts?" that helped establish the phrase 'provincialising
Europe' as a keyword in postcolonial studies.
 Chakrabarty does not omit the programme of a politics of despair from the first chapter of his book but adds in a supplemet that "the 'politics of despair' I once proposed with some passion does not any longer drive the larger argument presented here" (46).
 Cf. e.g. David Punter's appropriation of Chakrabarty's 'politics of despair' for his own privileging of "melancholy, [...] defeat and loss"; Postcolonial Imaginings. Fictions of a New World Order, Edinburgh (Edinburgh University Press) 2000, 188; the direct reference to Chakrabarty opens the book (vii), selectively quoting from the 1992 article.
 Johannes Fabian's devastating critique of anthropology is certainly still one of the most poignant verdicts against the allochronic discourse "by which relations between the West and its Other [...] were conceived not only as difference, but as distance in space and Time"; Time and the Other. How Anthropology Makes Its Object, New York (Columbia University Press) 1983, 147.
 Marx quoted in Chakrabarty from Theories of Surplus Value; for the German original, cf. MEW 26.3, Theorien über den Mehrwert, Berlin/GDR (Dietz) 1968, 460: "Diese ältren Formen findet es [das industrielle Kapital] vor in der Epoche seiner Bildung und seines Entstehens. Es findet sie als Voraussetzungen vor, aber nicht als von ihm selbst gesetzte Voraussetzungen, nicht als Formen seines eigenen Lebensprozesses."
 Is it necessary to recall here that 'Hegelian marxists' such as Georg Lukács or Fredric Jameson, not to mention Marx himself, have consistently addressed heterogeneity within the 'totalising' framework of the analysis of modes of production?
 In a later section of the book, Chakrabarty performs a structurally similar dissociation of the notion of the present in homogeneous time, suggesting, with Heidegger, "not-being-a-totality a constitutional characteristic of the 'now'" (250). I am not going to discuss this particular section since it merely repeats the discursive heterogenisation applied to 'capital' in the section under scrutiny here.